Dirty Girl Kitchen Diaries

Material Culture

Remember the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts flicks a snail across the table while trying to use a utensil that she is oh, so foreign to. (Escargot or snail, interestingly enough, is actually 15 percent protein, very low in fat and to prepare them they are purged, killed, removed from their shells and cooked, most often with butter, garlic and stock.)

Now, back to the snail flying across the table. Roberts was using a special snail fork to get them out of their shells. It was a fork she at first had trouble identifying and a fork she obviously had trouble using. Sure it is a Hollywood interpretation of the poor girl being depicted as not having any etiquette or knowledge of ‘material culture’ but have you ever had that moment in a restaurant or a friend’s home with foreign objects or utensils strategically placed on the tabletop? That moment where you feel awkward and are dreading the Roberts repeat?

My recent trip to the Oxford Symposium of Food got me thinking as to why on earth I had not spent much time pondering ‘material culture’ before. Historically the very nature of it is fascinating. One of the papers presented was by an incredible art curator who had spent a large part of her career studying paintings from varying periods in which she had looked at the cutlery on the tables in the works. You see, a knife on some tables, yet not on others, was a way of determining a class system through art. In a way that somewhat still stands if you were to think about silver service or any form of a fancy meal.

We are all surrounded and immersed in material culture daily. We order a meal at a restaurant and with that meal comes, at the very least, three items of material culture: the plate, the knife and the fork. Sometimes there could be a plethora of utensils, for example, a degustation or a very ‘posh’ meal in which there may be many a fork, but never a spork.

A spork is an interesting one. The term ‘spork’ was first recorded in a dictionary in 1909, though the fi rst patent for one was only issued in 1970. Both the word and the object is (if you have never encountered one) inherently a hybrid of spoon and fork. The spork is what theorists of technology call a joined tool: two inventions combined. In its Augustan form — contrived from fl imsy disposable plastic and given away at fast-food outlets and petrol stations — the spork has the scooping bowl of a spoon combined with the prongs of a fork.

Its somewhat weird half brother is the splayd (knife, fork and spoon in one), a knoon, a spife or rather jovially, a ‘knork’.

So next time you are sitting awkwardly dreading your very own Roberts repeat, thank your lucky stars you aren’t as confused as a spork or a knork.

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